The first time I ever tried Shaka Tea, a line of ice teas brewed with māmaki, a Hawaiian plant endemic to the Islands, was back in 2016.
I was in the O‘ahu home of owners Bella Hughes and Harrison Rice, at the time a young couple with two very young kids who had, two years earlier, taken out a loan and invested their entire savings to start their business.
At the time, the couple had received the first shipment of 18,000 Shaka Tea bottles in three flavors to be stocked in more than 60 restaurants and shops on O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i Island and Kaua‘i, as well as on the shelves of some local supermarkets.
I remember sitting in their dining room, watching Hughes balance 2-year-old Roya on her knee while sipping from a bottle of guava and ginger blossom-flavored Shaka Tea and thinking, “I hope these guys make it.”
Fast forward four years and Shaka Tea is found in more than 3,700 locations in the U.S.—including 600 GNC stores, 100 airport CIBO Express Gourmet Markets and all Hawai‘i Costco stores. The company headquarters has relocated to Hawai‘i Island (where all of its māmaki is grown), its product line has expanded to include tea blends and new flavors, and last summer the couple opened its first retail space in Hilo.
I’d say that’s making it.
The new shop is called Shaka Tea HQ & Retail Experience Center and it’s located between two iconic Hilo foodie destinations on Kīlauea Avenue fronting Hilo Bay: Two Ladies Kitchen, with its cult-popular mochi (Japanese rice cakes) and Asami’s Kitchen, an old-school okazuya popular for its boneless fried chicken. The couple couldn’t have asked for a better location.
“Hilo is our absolute favorite town that has a rich foodie culture,” Hughes says from her new shop. “When a space popped up [here] ... we knew it was the perfect spot.”
The 800-square-foot shop is part retail space and part classroom. Here, you can sample and buy Shaka Tea products while learning about Hawai‘i-grown teas, sustainable agriculture and native Hawaiian plants in the shop’s daily Tea & Talk Story event. The shop will host regular workshops, lectures and classes. And just recently, in-house tea processing equipment was installed so visitors can see the entire process, from leaf to cup.
“Tea is universal,” Hughes says, adding it’s an easy entry point to talk about a variety of related issues.
Turns out, this is Hawai‘i’s first tea-blending bar dedicated exclusively to Hawai‘i-grown green and black teas, including its signature product, māmaki. Māmaki, a low-lying shrub that’s grown nowhere else in the world, is commonly used in traditional lā‘au lapa‘au (medicine) for its healing properties. As a tea, māmaki is noted for its health benefits including metabolism-boosting catechins, antioxidants and nutrients.
The couple sources its māmaki from about a dozen Hawai‘i Island growers on farms ranging in size from 1 acre to 20 acres. Many of these farmers practice agroforestry, growing other crops such as ‘ulu (breadfruit), cacao, moringa and banana; others grow māmaki beneath koa and ‘ōhia trees in a more native rainforest habitat.
“The demand for māmaki is growing and it’s such an incredible crop,” Hughes says. “Farmers are able to support the restoration of native ecosystems, as māmaki is endemic to our Islands and the host plant for our native pollinator and endangered pulelehua butterfly, and earn a premium on this high-value crop that gives a return on investment in six to 12 months from planting.”
The couple has perfected their bottled brew over the years, too, to create a zero-calorie, sugar-free herbal tea using māmaki. It’s light, refreshing and comes in four flavors: guava ginger blossom, pineapple mint, mango hibiscus and lemon lokelani rose.
Last year Shaka Tea launched three māmaki tea blends, combining the Hawai‘i-grown māmaki with a variety of herbs and botanicals—all caffeine-free. Two more will be released soon.
“First and foremost, this is a place to welcome our superfans and build new ones,” Hughes says. “We are ambitiously scaling into a national brand with a commitment to sharing the story of Hawai‘i through tea and sustainable agriculture.”
Shaka Tea, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 288 Kīlauea Ave., Hilo, (808) 375-9381, shakatea.com